The Anvil’s Ring: Watch Out For Them English

By John O’Connell,

No, despite the title I’m not going to write about the Amish.( Still, if you haven’t seen Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in the movie Witness, you really should.)

I was reading one of my newsletter subscriptions recently when it once again occurred to me that I have an insatiable interest in all things Great Britain. I read newsletters by Britons or at least former Britons like C.W Cooke who is now an American citizen.

(Be warned. Charlie is Oxford educated, brilliant, and a very good writer. You tangle with him at your peril. Still, check him out. I get nothing for you clicking on the link and possibly subscribing. I just really enjoy his mind and his writing even when I think he is wrong! )

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From our house in Southwestern Montana I watch British television shows, especially comedies and detective programs. I watch or read the BBC for news around the world everyday. I follow the British armed forces on Twitter and even have gotten friendly with some of the tweeters who are very kind with an American cousin who doesn’t get the lingo sometimes. I learn how to tie trout flies that I use here on our local Madison and Gallatin Rivers from a man in Scotland named Davie McPhail who has a fantastic channel on YouTube. Even if you don’t tie flies or fish, his voice is soothing, and watching a craftsman at work is just relaxing, at least to me. I guess you can say I am definitely an Anglophile.

So, you can imagine my excitement when I learned from Charlie Cooke’s newsletter that Stephen Fry, an English actor of course, has done an Audible audio book on the complete Sherlock Holmes. I got a hardcover version of the complete works from my mother at Christmas one year when I was 11 or 12 years old and literally wore it to rags. I cant wait to go on a fishing/ hunting trip and follow Holmes and Watson prowling the seedy side of London for clues or sit by the fire in their sitting room at 221B Baker Street listening to the latest client’s mysterious tale.

By the way, if you are a Sherlock Holmes geek like me you can click on the Audible link below and get a free trial! You can then listen to Holmes and Watsons adventures while supporting us here at Montana Historian Magazine. I sure would appreciate it.

Strand magazine Vol iv.1892. Page page 646. illustration The Adventure of the Silver Blaze- “Holmes gave me a sketch of the events” Alex Werner Private Collection.

How does a guy in Montana become an Anglophile? One would think my Irish roots would preclude such a thing. I read everything I can get my hands on about Ireland and the Irish both back in the old sod and here in America. I certainly heard enough horror stories as a young person back in Connecticut from family ( Some of my people had “disagreements” with the Crown back in the day) and friends of family about The Troubles, The Great Famine, the land wars, The Easter Uprising. I sat in pubs, pint in hand, listening to Irish bands in 1970’s New Haven and Boston singing the old revolutionary songs while passing the hat around for “The Widows and Orphans”.

Scene at Skibbereen during the Great Famine by Cork artist James Mahony, The Illustrated London News, 1847

Here’s the thing. All those stories I had listened to as a kid had educated me enough to know that no widow or orphan was going to see that money. It was for arms. And while I sympathized with a free Ireland, I didn’t want to contribute to making more widows and orphans.

My sympathy ended with the assassinations of Lord Louis Mountbatten, his sister and grandchild by the Provisional I.R.A in County Sligo, Ireland in 1979. It was done with a bomb planted in Mountbatten’s boat. I thought it pointless and strategically stupid, not to mention cowardly, to blow up an old man and his family out picking up a few lobsters for dinner. I never attended another Irish band performance despite my love for the music. Still, I’m not an Anglophile because of my disagreements with the IRA. Besides, I’m pretty sure they didn’t care at any rate.

Lord Louis Mountbatten

Maybe I’m an Anglophile because Great Britain is old. Old enough in fact that history can get very tangled with myth and the outcome, while not accurate, is lots of fun. I mean, how could you not love the story of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle in 1485?

Legend said he was a hunchback. His modern day fans say he wasn’t and defended his spine vociferously. Archeologists find him buried under a parking lot in Leicester and in 2013 announce he indeed had a curved spine. His fans publicly bawled their eyes out in grief over their Vertebral Challenged king. It was glorious!

However, maybe it’s the literature. At least my kind of literature. I sat as a kid and read of legends like King Arthur, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, and Bilbo Baggins that are so shrouded in the mist and magic of British literature that they seemed to me, and many others, to be almost real.

Maybe it’s actual people who in some cases are just as legendary as the fictional ones. Lawrence of Arabia, Richard the Lionheart, William Wallace, Robert The Bruce, Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill, the Duke of Wellington, Queen Victoria. The list seems endless.

I’m sure this sounds ignorant and silly to someone actually from Great Britain, but maybe I’m an Anglophile because in my imagination Great Britain represents something more sophisticated, learned, and genteel than anything we have in America. Certainly something more quiet and less hurried.

For example, I have no problem imagining sitting in a stone fishing hut on a salmon river in Scotland in front of a nice fire. The only sounds are of the river flowing to the sea , the wind, and the crackling of the fire. I eat my sandwich, drink my tea then walk out to pick up my fly rod and begin the old routine.

I look at the water’s color, speed, and depth. Select an appropriate fly (which are works of art in themselves). Cast across and down, let the fly swing across the river, step down river a few steps and cast again. Waiting for that take and an explosion of water and a flash of silver as an Atlantic salmon races away. Not a soul in sight. Just me, the river, and the fish surrounded by a landscape of mist, mountains and memories. What I wouldn’t give to find that river. Well, maybe someday.

Classic Salmon Flies

Meanwhile, back here in my Montana reality, I stand on the banks of the Madison and I’m surrounded by the drift boats, the endless float tubes of the over-stuffed bikini hatch,(that’s what we call the tubers because they cover a river like a Mayfly hatch) and the automobiles or four wheelers roaring by on the riverside paved road and dirt two-track.

Kodiak Leather Co

There will be people shouting about hooking a fish. People shouting about losing a fish. People just shouting over who knows what. Other people innocently(they are always innocent) wading in next to me to force me out of the river. People innocently (“Oh, I didn’t see you!”) attempting to run me over with their boat to force me out of the river. People with no control over their innocent dogs ( “He just wants to help!”) that joyously jump into the river next to me to see what I’m doing that just wont leave, that forces me out of the river.

The Madison River Montana Outdoor

I’ve been told that the scenery of Montana makes up for inconvenience. I’ve also been told the scenery is nice but you can’t eat it. They both have a point but when the scenery is underscored with political campaign signs along the river, obnoxious bumper stickers on the boats, and pickups zipping around with knobby tires and campaign flags sticking up out of their beds like some kind of bastardized Iraqi technical, I get discouraged and plop down amongst the litter on the river bank wondering why I bother. I’m not supposed to go fishing and leave angry with a garbage bag full of trash, yet way too often, that’s exactly what I do.

Iraqi Technical

Instead of drinking tea and having a sandwich I spend most of my time trying to find a place to fish uninterrupted for an hour or two. The Madison is a big river. It shouldn’t be hard, but it can be.

I think I might have tumbled to it during my little rant. Maybe I’m an Anglophile because Great Britain has given me the ability to visit that fishing hut or 221B Baker Street when ever I want. I can look at the map of Waterloo with Wellington or watch The Blitz on a rooftop with Churchill and wonder how they ever got through it all. Best of all, not a float tube, over-stuffed bikini, or campaign sign in sight!

I used to be able to do the same thing here in America especially when reading about the West. I could hunt and float the rivers with Lewis and Clark on their unbelievably difficult journey to the Pacific Ocean. I could sit on the hill above the gigantic Native camp on the Greasy Grass River watching the ponies graze on the far benches waiting for Custer to make his ill fated move. I would fish the Firehole River in Yellowstone Park with buffalo and geysers around me stopping only to watch an eagle soar.

I moved to Montana many years ago and while my wife, Kerry, and I have had wonderful adventures here, raised our children here and walked in places I’m convinced no human has ever trod on before, which is pretty darn cool by the way, reality eventually descended upon me. It did for the Lakota, Crow, Blackfeet and all the other tribes as well. It happened to the Mountain Men, the Cowboys, Farmers and Miners. It happened to the railroads. It happened to the little ghost towns spread all across the land. It even happened to the wildlife. The Buffalo. The Grizzly. The Wolf.

Reality grinds down hopes and dreams like a millstone grinds grain. Sure, the grain is still there once the stone is done but it will never be the same.

My oh my, that sure got dark, didn’t it? Still, maybe as an Anglophile I shouldn’t make that trip to find my salmon river. My imagination is a better and safer place for it to be.

Meanwhile, keep your nose into the wind and I’ll see you on the trail.

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